One Simple Thought Experiment Explains Why Affirmative Action Hurts Those It Is Supposed To Help

Affirmative action in college admissions is once again in front of the Supreme Court of the United States. Thus, it is once again a hot button issue that we as a nation must face. Recently, Justice Scalia got in some hot water for arguing against affirmative action by claiming it hurts those it intends to help. Scalia got in trouble largely because he said this in an in-artful way, and in doing so caused a lot of offense. Well, allow us to explain what he was trying to say in a simple, inoffensive manner.

Imagine that you have four students graduating high school in the same year. All four belong to a group that grants them affirmative action benefits. These four students are also very diverse in academic achievements. One got a near perfect score on his SAT, and has the highest GPA in the class. The next isn’t as exceptional but is still well above the class average in both, placing him in the 85th percentile in academic skills nationwide. The third is middle of the road – he got an average SAT score and has a lackluster GPA. The fourth scored poorly on his SAT, or never took it, and barely graduated high school in the first place.

In a world without affirmative action, the first student would likely attend an elite college like MIT, Harvard, or Princeton based off his skills alone. The second student would foreseeably attend a strong, upper-middle level school, like University of Wisconsin, Northeastern University, or UCLA. The third student would likely attend a normal, unexceptional state school, because he was unable to impress a stronger college. The fourth would likely need to start out at the bottom – attending a community college until he got his head on straight.

Now, imagine a world with affirmative action. The first student would still attend an elite school, and if anything he would just have an easier time of it. He might even get some academic or financial benefits on top of his success. But the other three would have their prospects changed. You see, all three of the other students attended schools that are less academically rigorous compared to the tier above them. Suddenly, the third student would be able to go to a school like Northeastern University, instead of a middle of the road school. The fourth student no longer need settle for community college, as other middle or lower-tier four-year schools will take a look at him.

Ultimately, what happens to the other three students is this – they may attend schools that are more challenging academically than what they are prepared for. These schools will not slow down their curriculum for a handful of affirmative action entrants. These students will have to dedicate more time to studying than their peers who got in on achievements alone, and will be more likely to get lower grades, fail classes, drop out, or graduate late. They could also switch to easier majors, as doing difficult STEM-like work at a high ranked school is harder than doing STEM at a middle-tier school.

As the brilliant economist Thomas Sowell has written when reviewing a colleague’s book,

“In the introduction to his book, Stein says that his purpose is “to talk honestly about race.” He accomplishes that purpose in a fact-filled book that should be a revelation, especially to young people of any race, who have been fed a party line in schools and colleges across America…

Some readers of this book may be surprised to learn that the ban on racial preferences in the University of California system did not lead to a disappearance of blacks from the system, as the supporters of affirmative action claimed would happen.

On the contrary, more blacks graduated from the system after the ban — for the very common sense reason that they were now admitted to University of California campuses where they qualified, rather than to places like UCLA and Berkeley, where they had often been admitted to fill a quota, and often failed.”

When the University of California system banned affirmative action, it saw great results from doing so. Students were now matched with schools that fit their skills, and were able to have more success academically as a result.

In closing, it’s tempting to lash out at the idea of ending affirmative action programs, but when the programs themselves are hurting those they are supposed to help, maybe it is in fact time to end them.

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